#IMWAYR: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Hello everyone! Today I am excited to be recommending another truly incredible YA novel: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.
Please note, this is a young adult (YA) novel, and it contains mature content.
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I'm so excited that, with this book, I have officially met my goal of reading 3 books for the Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue Jackson at Book by Book!
And I am also have excited to have read this book simply because it is the favorite book of one of my good friends, and I'm glad I can finally talk to her about it.
Let's start off with the publisher's description of this book:
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
A tribute to the people of Lithuania, Poland, and East Prussia, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.
This book is hopeful and haunting, suspenseful and careful, focused and otherworldly, and I know I cannot even begin to capture just how exceptional of a story this is. But as always, I'm going to try.
This is a book of four characters—three refugees, and one Nazi—who are so close, and yet so far, from the end of World War II. This is a book of their journeys, their memories, their loves, their determination. And this is a book of a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, that thousands upon thousands of people, including these characters, boarded in hopes of a better life.
This is a book of a ship that sank. And killed six times as many people as the Titanic.
The sheer scale of human hardship, human agony, human destruction in this book—in our world—is unimaginable. So Ruta Sepetys—author of several acclaimed historical fiction novels besides this one—smartly focuses the story on just a few characters, through whose eyes we can view the whole world.
We have Joana, whose caring instincts and unflinching determination make her a skilled nurse, always watching out for those around her, putting everything she has into trying to save them from a terrible fate.
We have Florian, who grits his teeth and pushes through, who tries to hide the hurt he feels from a life-and-death situation inspired by WWII history, but whose courage, and good heart, and clarity of mind, make him a perfect fit for Joana along their journey.
We have Emilia, wearing a pink woolen hat, almost an anomaly in that she should be broken but isn't, in that she is traveling through a hostile country and is fearful, always, yet she is alive, and she is life itself, and she reminds her companions of what they live for.
And we have side characters, characters who do not get their own POV yet still hold so many startling truths, characters who I am desperate to discuss but would rather you discover yourself.
You'll notice I'm avoiding the Nazi—Alfred. Yet he has his own POV too, but it's one that reveals altogether different truths. Reading Alfred's thoughts, he seems on top of the world, a slimy, conceited Nazi reveling in joy and a sense of purpose while Joana, Florian, and Emilia fight for their lives. But Alfred is only so skilled at covering his true nature.
Alfred is the 1940s equivalent of an incel, and I'm not saying that as an insult, I'm saying it because it's true. Alfred is, horrifyingly, the exact concoction of insecurities and mistreatments that all the corruptible young men in today's world are as well, and he makes obvious the fact that we have all the people we need to start the next discriminatory, murderous revolution—there just hasn't been a leader skilled enough to rile them up. Yet.
At his core, Alfred's worst failing is that he has forgotten how to feel pain—both his own, and that of others. He has been taunted his whole life for being a coward, and the teasing gets to him, until he goes numb. And when he stops feeling the pain of others too—well, that is when Hitler's philosophy begins to make all too much sense to him, when whimpers of compassion and guilt flutter in his mind but are all too easily ignored in the name of a bigger goal. And as my mom pointed out about the general incel/white supremacist philosophy, when Alfred sees how trying again and again and again to prove his dominance simply doesn't work, he doesn't stop—he only feels like he is even more of a failure for having the tools to succeed (whatever that means) and failing anyway.
We could all be Alfred, given the right (well, wrong) circumstances. And that is a terrifying and important realization contained within this book.
But I don't want to keep talking about Alfred, when there is still so much more to say. This book is such a strange, almost shocking dichotomy of the brutality and joy alike of human existence. Salt to the Sea has moments where, amidst the ghostly, miserable chaos of refugees desperately attempting to board a boat they cannot all fit on, mothers attempt to toss their young babies to passengers on board, willing to leave their child to give them a better life—except that they miss, and their babies hit the side of the ship, and fall into the ice-cold water, and are gone. (That is not an image I will be able to forget anytime soon.) But this book also shows us wisdom put forth by a fellow traveler nicknamed the "shoe poet," and young love that passionately burns in a world of cold feelings, and motherhood that brings compassion and sheer determination in a time of need.
I learned history from this book, how far more people died in shipwrecks like that of the Wilhelm Gustloff—which were intentional, mind you, conducted as part of war—than in accidents like that of the Titanic. I learned how Germany ignored every last ounce of common sense and crammed several times more people onto the Gustloff than it was designed for, all while not preparing enough lifeboats or life jackets in case of emergency.
And I also learned how the United States allying themselves with Russia did not automatically make Russia the "good guys" during the war, despite what American curriculum standards might hope you would think—Russia committed acts of brutality and terrorism that, while perhaps not as coordinated as the German concentration camps, were every bit as horrific and absurdly cruel.
I wonder, in some ways, if every book can be distilled down to characters bogged down in reality, who then eventually "cut the crap," so to speak, and figure out what actually matters to them. And as I've learned from authors like Tillie Walden, the best way to get characters to "cut the crap" is to put them in a crisis, where suddenly every decision has the weight of survival behind it, and the knowledge, too, that the wrong decision could be one you regret forever.
In Salt to the Sea, every one of these characters is brought to a moment where they have to decide, quite simply, if they believe they are worthy of survival over others. It is startling to see many of the characters in the background—many of us—answer that question with an unequivocal "yes," and try desperately and instinctively to save themselves and no one else. But some characters choose a different path. Some save themselves but do everything they can to protect the ones they love too—whether that will assuage the guilt and the nightmares is anyone's guess, but still, it matters. And some characters, when the moment comes to act or not, choose almost without thinking to put the ones they love before themselves. These are the characters we should aspire to be.
Ruta Sepetys brings this story to life with an unparalleled writing style. I imagined this book would be dense, emotionally distant, full of historical details that, out of context, mean nothing. But Sepetys instead researches the details of her story to such an exacting degree that she is able to integrate those details into the lives of her characters. She knows exactly how each historical event would have affected the characters who, at the end of the day, are the story's true focus. Sepetys writes concisely, with surprisingly-short pages and chapters that jump back and forth between POV like scenes in a movie. And her brevity means that the places she chooses to focus on details, or inject more imagery, are places that actually grab the reader's attention, rather than losing it.
I've been told that we need to remember history in order to prevent it from happening again. But the problem I always encounter with this philosophy is that history feels so different, in context and time period alike, that I struggle both to learn it and to apply it to the present day. Salt to the Sea changed this for me, for the simple reason that it gives history an emotional weight, a now-ness, that makes it all too similar to the context we live in today. This book reminds us that our beliefs and prejudices now have massive consequences for people, including us, down the line. It reminds us that we cannot lose touch with who we are at our deepest core—nor can we ever stop trying to improve this part of us. And this book reminds us that we must always, always fight as hard as we can for what is right, but also that somehow, even in the most haunting of ways, compassion and joy always find a way to win.
My rating is: Stunning!